Column
September 14, 2016

Local news

Since August, the same sports-journalism scandal has occurred twice. First, an Internet firestorm arose when The Chicago Tribune tweeted the following: “Wife of a Bears’ lineman wins a bronze medal today in Rio Olympics.” Feminists, already exasperated by numerous previous instances of sexist Olympic coverage, took the newspaper to task for identifying an accomplished woman not by her name but, instead, by her marital status: even in her moment of glory, trapshooter Corey Cogdell-Unrein was apparently not as important as her husband.
A month later, bloggers lambasted the New Orleans Times-Picayune for a relatedly problematic headline: “Jrue Holiday to miss start of season as pregnant wife Lauren Holiday faces brain surgery.” Lauren Holiday is a 28-year-old retired World Cup champion who won the U.S. Soccer Female Athlete of the Year award in 2014; Jrue Holiday is the starting point guard for the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans. Both are great athletes, but Lauren Holiday is arguably more accomplished than Jrue, so why is a story about her brain tumor framed in terms of the effect it will have on her husband’s career?
The similarity of these recent stories is striking, but the tendency of the media to define women in relation to their families is nothing new. In 2014, for example, a Sunday Times headline in the U.K. won infamy for erasing the professional identity of a respected sociologist and university professor: “Grandmother, 71, tackles slave traffickers for the Pope.” This is a symptom of deprioritization, a belief that nothing that a woman can do on her own is as important as her role as a caregiver for her husband, children, and grandchildren.
Still, when the Corey Cogdell-Unrein story briefly took over the Internet, I noted that perhaps none of the apoplectic bloggers had noted the real difficulty of the predicament faced by The Chicago Tribune’s social media manager. Here is the tweet that the critics wanted: “Trapshooter Corey Cogdell-Unrein wins a bronze medal today in Rio Olympics.” But, for The Chicago Tribune, this tweet would not have been publishable: it’s non-news. A lot of Americans won medals that day, some of them gold—that an Alaskan woman who trains in Colorado Springs won a bronze in one of the Olympics’ least popular sports is not newsworthy in Chicago unless she’s the wife of a Bears lineman.
In a sane world, The Chicago Tribune wouldn’t tweet about her at all, but such is the mania for football in our nation that the mildly curious details of the personal life of a backup defensive end constitute subjects of public interest—there are far more people who would like to know that Mitch Unrein is married to a competitive trapshooter (how odd!) than would like to know the results of an Olympic trapshooting competition. Our all-consuming obsession for the macho violence of American football is, in a sense, the more pressing issue here. If no one cares about trapshooting (by women or men), I can’t blame them.
At the very least, The Chicago Tribune should have included Corey Cogdell-Unrein’s name in its tweet, but it’s not clear that this would have saved the newspaper from criticism. The blog “Jezebel” published a disapproving post about the article to which the tweet linked apparently before discovering the scandalous tweet itself. The article’s headline—“Corey Cogdell, wife of Bears lineman Mitch Unrein, wins bronze in Rio”—was deemed offensive even with the athlete’s name attached, the argument being that she shouldn’t have had to share space, as no article about Mitch Unrein’s football achievements would include the word “husband” in its headline. Yet the “correct” headline for the trapshooting article—one that would make sense to Chicagoans and draw them into the piece—is difficult, for me anyway, to determine.
It could likewise be argued that the headline in the New Orleans Times-Picayune was only a practical reflection of the preexisting knowledge base of its readership. Lauren Holiday spent her athletic career in Los Angeles, Boston, and Kansas City. An Indianapolis native, she has no connection to New Orleans except through her husband (a Pelican since 2013). If not for this, her story wouldn’t be reported by the Times-Picayune at all. In truth, it’s an interesting story, but surely, for most New Orleanians, the most significant takeaway is that their team’s point guard will miss part of the regular season—which speaks not necessarily to the sexism of New Orleanians but to the more general limitations of human beings: we all care more about our favorite team than about the actual suffering of someone we’ve never heard of. That the Pelicans’ loss was deemed more important than Lauren Holiday’s personal struggle is no more an injustice than the very existence of the sports sections of newspapers—how, in the world we live in, can we waste ink on basketball?
I don’t wish to contend that the coverage of Corey Cogdell-Unrein and Lauren Holiday by The Chicago Tribune and the New Orleans Times-Picayune contained no sexism, but the unwillingness of Internet critics to concede that the necessity for local newspapers to play up a story’s local angle may have contributed to the objectionable wording of these headlines is, to me, almost equally intriguing. Are the “social justice warriors” being deliberately unfair? Are they sniping for sport?
Or, as Millennial consumers of Internet media, do they simply not understand the concept of “local news?” How many of the outraged Twitter users who came across The Chicago Tribune’s tweet via BuzzFeed have ever read The Chicago Tribune or a similar newspaper? Like anyone else, they read the news that speaks to their concerns of their community, by which can mean not their city but the particular Internet tribe to which they belong: feminists, gamers, anti-vaxxers. Yet the basis of local news is the real-world community, geographically limited but ideologically far more diverse.
The real world and the Internet can perhaps coexist, but it’ll take work: put down the phone occasionally and pick up a newspaper.

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